Friday, June 3, 2016

The Living Reed: A Novel of Korea by Pearl S. Buck

Should have been a trilogy
I would consider myself a pretty big fan of Pearl S. Buck. Although I’m not crazy about every last thing she’s written, my appreciation for her work goes well beyond The Good Earth. The Living Reed, published in 1963, is the eighth of Buck’s novels that I’ve read and reviewed so far, and more than any of the others, this one really tested my patience. I’m a voracious reader, but it took me months to get through this book. It is just way too long. That in and of itself is not a fatal flaw, but length becomes an annoyance when there’s little overarching unity to the book. The novel follows the lives of one family over four generations, but it has a meandering plot that feels like several novels of different styles and messages stuck together into an ungainly montage. This family saga really could have been more effective had she divided it into a trilogy.

The story begins in 1881. Korea is governed by a monarchy, which is in the midst of a power struggle, and surrounded by neighbors—Russia, China, Japan—that wish to make it a vassal state. Il-han, a scholar of the aristocratic yangban class, is a loyal advisor to the Queen. She favors siding with China, but Il-han tries to convince her to develop a strategic relationship with the U.S. The King, however, has other plans. After much political intrigue, as history well tell you, Japan annexes Korea. From there, the novel becomes a story of life under foreign occupation, somewhat resembling Buck’s 1942 book Dragon Seed.

Buck grew up in China and had a great love for and knowledge of Chinese culture. While she doesn’t seem to have the same affinity for Korea, she has certainly done her research well. The problem is that the research often overpowers the storytelling. The first third of the book is a morass of historical context and cultural exposition. Early in the book, for example, when a major character dies, it’s unclear whether that death is necessary to the story or whether Buck just needed an opportunity for a detailed discussion of Korean funerary customs, right down to the methods by which the mourning clothes are manufactured. The second half of the book requires less heavy lifting of historical detail and concentrates more on the life of the fictional family. At times it ventures into melodrama, but every now and then you get one of those powerful emotional moments that one expects from Buck. The ending is particularly moving, but too much of what precedes it is rambling and listless.

The book concludes with the end of World War II. Much of the story focuses on Korea’s struggle for independence, and the role that America plays in realizing that dream. During World War I, Buck has the Koreans worshipping Woodrow Wilson as if he were some kind of god. While it may be true that Korea looked to America as their savior from Japan, the Korean characters’ attitude of adoration toward the U.S. often feels like wishful thinking on the part of an American author. To her credit, however, Buck makes it clear that the American government didn’t always live up to the hero Korea wanted it to be.

Like so many of Buck’s novels, The Living Reed is a monumental achievement. Her research is extensive and her narrative is epic. However, reading the book inspires more admiration than enjoyment. Compared to better books like The Good Earth trilogy and Dragon Seed, this one feels a bit empty, despite its mammoth size. Sometimes the human element can get lost in the epic.
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